Acad pirouettes to the dark side

Tales of torment are everywhere that voters turn

Darkness on the edge of Oscar?

It didn’t matter how many people told Martin Scorsese that it was finally his year when his dark crime-thriller “The Departed” was up for best picture four years ago. After losing countless times in the picture and director categories for modern classics like “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas,” Scorsese had absolutely zero expectations.

“It was a big surprise, to say the least,” Scorsese says of the movie’s four Oscars, including his first for direction. “I never imagined a film like ‘The Departed’ would have become best picture. But I think what has happened with the Academy is that the people who were making movies in the 1970s and ’80s are the generation voting now, and they have a very different way of seeing the world.”

That generational shift manifested itself not only with the vote for Scorsese’s movie but the next three best picture winners as well. With “No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker,” Academy members have embraced indie movies laced with heavy themes and directed by top-notch filmmakers.

Given the slate of movies competing this year for Oscar’s 10 best picture slots, it would seem a movement that shows no signs of abating. Consider the contenders: There’s “Black Swan,” a psychological horror tale about the costs of artistic perfection; “127 Hours,” where a trapped hiker graphically amputates his arm to survive; “True Grit,” where revenge is delivered by a one-eyed marshal in the Old West; and “The Social Network,” spotlighting an asocial dweeb in the 21st century.

We could go on, noting the brutal antiheroes in “The Town” or the twisty mind games in “Inception” or the outlaw Ozark meth dealers in “Winter’s Bone,” but you get the idea. Even the year’s favorite family movie, “Toy Story 3,” features a key scene in which Buzz and Woody and the gang join hands and face their mortality on the way to the fiery furnace.

“People weren’t thinking that we’d go there,” says “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich. “They weren’t expecting it to feel so raw and honest. I think everyone kept waiting for Mr. Potato Head to crack a joke, figuring we’d pull out a silly sight gag and get the toys out of the predicament.”

That “Toy Story 3” came from Disney/Pixar underscores how the studios haven’t completed ceded weighty fare to specialty divisions. Half of last year’s slate of best picture nominees were studio efforts, including “Up,” “Up in the Air,” “District 9” and, of course, “Avatar.” This year, the mix includes “Grit,” “The Town,” “Inception” and “Social.”

“In addition to the tentpole movies, studios are putting grown-up films in the mix,” says producer Scott Rudin. “The Academy recognizes those films as well as others. People vote for the movie they want to represent the year in moviemaking. They don’t vote to trend.”

Judging from those votes, there seems to be, as Scorsese points out, a recognizable shift in Academy voters’ tastes. When the best picture race doubled in size last year, the nominations went to movies like “Precious,” “Inglourious Basterds” and the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” films far removed from “Around the World in 80 Days”-style fare.

Comedies such as “The Hangover,” “It’s Complicated” and even critical favorite “(500) Days of Summer” were ignored.

“I really don’t believe Academy members think in terms of serious or light,” says helmer Danny Boyle (“Slumdog”).

And even though his current film, “127 Hours,” features the heralded arm-removal scene, Boyle considers the movie an optimistic hero’s tale about embracing life. ” ‘Slumdog’ had that, too, that mixture of tragedy and triumph,” he says. “That’s the stuff of great stories.”

Though not necessarily the kinds of stories studios are really itching to make. After Warner Independent went belly-up, Warner Bros. mulled a straight-to-DVD release for “Slumdog” before Fox Searchlight stepped in to help shoulder costs. Likewise, the boxing drama “The Fighter” languished in development for years until Relativity Media agreed to foot the $11 million production budget.

“The reality is no one wants to make these films,” says “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky. “Until they’re done, no one wants them. Everyone passed at least once on ‘The Wrestler.’ And, again, with ‘Black Swan,’ no one wanted to make it. It was harder to raise money for this, and that was with Natalie Portman on board.”

Which is one reason why Aronofsky’s next movie is “The Wolverine,” a film, that, however good it might be, probably won’t make the Academy’s list.

“Though it will be dark,” he jokes, “so you never know.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: Nomination Tip Sheet:
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